The true genius of Leonardo has only really begun to be understood in our own times. Yet surprisingly little is known about his life and person. But in the beginning he was severely disadvantaged.The known facts about his life are simply stated. Born in 1452 in the little Tuscan town of Vinci in the hills above the Arno, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a lawyer. He never knew who his mother was, though she nursed him as a baby. [part 1]
The early years: in Florence
This may partly explain why so many scenes in his paintings contain mother figures and tender childhood scenes. Freud wrote a book attempting to explain Leonardo’s art from this fact. But from personal and psychological facts one can only explain a small part of Leonardo’s creativity. The greater part can only be understood as part of the great historical mosaic in which it developed. Leonardo was forced to adapt himself to the conditions of the turbulent age into which he had been born. This explains why he devoted so much time and effort to designing weapons and siege engines to sell to the rival gangs of wealthy hoodlums that rose to power in the city states of Italy at this time.
This was a period of tremendous upheavals in society – an age of wars and revolutions. In the 15th century Italy was an especially violent place, and nowhere was this violence more ferocious than in Florence, where rival merchant dynasties fought each other for power. It was one of the biggest cities in Europe, and it was right at the heart the Renaissance – a noisy, bustling city of 40,000 inhabitants, with a boisterous and sometimes dangerous night life.
Leonardo had no formal education. He knew only a little Latin – the prior condition for a good education in those days. But this lack of formal book learning, far from an impediment, was a factor that encouraged the development of those faculties that made him great. He was totally unconcerned about book learning, and instead leaned from the greatest book of all – the book of life and nature. He began his artistic life, as was common at the time, as a humble apprentice in Florence, in the workshop of the sculptor-painter Verrocchio, where he worked alongside Botticelli and Perugino.
The artist of those times occupied quite a lowly status in the social hierarchy. We must remember that the artist of that time was not a member of a special caste but only an artisan, on a similar level to craftsmen like tailors or saddle makers. As a young apprentice, an artistic proletarian, Leonardo produced practical things in a workshop that was really a factory. The master would paint the main figures in a picture and the humble apprentices would fill in the details and secondary figures.
The apprentices painted with egg tempera, a fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigment mixed with a water-soluble medium such as egg yolk. But Leonardo used the new technique that had been developed in the Low Countries – oil paints. This gave a far greater range of colours. Later oil paint was used throughout southern Europe, but at this time it was a great novelty.
According to the well-known anecdote in Vasari’s Lives of the Great Artists, when Verrocchio saw the figure that Leonardo had painted in his picture of Christ being baptised by John, he exclaimed that he would never paint again. Whether this anecdote is genuine or not is unclear, but certainly Leonardo’s part of the painting was remarkable. It was not his only innovation. In paintings like The Adoration of the Magi, there is a kind of raw power and energy that is new and shocking.
But despite his obvious talent, or maybe because of it, he soon got into serious trouble with the authorities. He was twice charged with sodomy (homosexuality) in 1476. This was a serious offence, punishable by death by burning. And he was actually imprisoned for two months. Alone in his prison cell, it sounds as if he was in a desperate state when he wrote on a piece of paper: “I am without friends” and “if there is no love, what then?” He was fortunate enough to have important friends who got him released.
Among numerous other inaccuracies in that preposterous film The Da Vinci Code, Leonardo is described as a "flamboyant homosexual." However, there is absolutely no historical basis for this assertion. Although Leonardo was rumoured to have been homosexual by his contemporaries, in actual fact we know almost nothing of his sex life. The charges against him (which were dropped for lack of witnesses) may well have been invented. It was the custom of the inhabitants to leave anonymous denunciations in the notorious Bocca della Verità, and Leonardo was accused in this way.
Accusing someone of sodomy was a tactic frequently used to cause someone else trouble in 15th century Florence, and it is quite conceivable that the accuser may have been a jealous artist. Whatever the truth may have been, he must have been profoundly shocked by the experience. He soon drew the conclusion that Florence was too dangerous a place in which to reside.
The second stage: in Milan
After these events, Leonardo left Florence in 1481 and went to live in Milan. This was a prosperous trading city, even more bourgeois and considerably more pragmatic than Florence. But the artist had other reasons to travel to Milan, a thriving city in Northern Italy – a boomtown run by a dynasty of wealthy gangsters with artistic pretensions and plenty of money to back them up. He was young and ambitious, and tried to advance himself by entering the service of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.
The Sforzas were absolutely typical of the ruling dynasties that rose to the top in Italy at this time. They ruled the roost with an iron hand. The head of the ruling Sforza clan, Ludovico Sforza was a wealthy parvenu with the typical obsession of all nouveaux riches for rank and breeding. He paid experts to draw up a family tree that would trace his ancestry back, not to an aristocrat but to a god. Vain and ambitious, Ludovico’s obsession with rank and genealogy had a sound material basis.
The hold of such men on power was always somewhat tenuous. Ludovico’s immediate predecessor had been stabbed 37 times by his own courtiers. He himself was insecure on his ducal throne, his family being seen as little more than a bunch of jumped up shoemakers. For this reason Ludovico attempted to increase his social status, among other things by surrounding himself with artists and other prestigious intellectuals. It was all about power and prestige.
Leonardo tried to ingratiate himself with his new patron by promising to build new types of fortifications and military machines. It is interesting that when making his request for employment, he did not appeal to the Duke’s artistic taste but rather to his more practical interest in the mechanical arts – particularly those linked to the most important one – the art of war. He inquired into the composition of explosives. He invented all kinds of things: watermills, engines of war including a tank, a paddlewheel for boats, a breech loading cannon and the conical rifle bullet.
Despite his lack of a formal education, from his youth Leonardo showed a profound grasp of mathematics. He used his knowledge of optics for both art and engineering. He designed aqueducts and bridges. He even built a bathroom for the Duchess and stage-managed the feasts, balls and lavish spectacles of the Duke. It was as if he was intoxicated with knowledge of all sorts. He investigated steam as a locomotive power in navigation, magnetic attraction, and the circulation of the blood. He even developed a prototype for a motorcar. However, he was paid less than the court dwarf.
Leonardo knew that it was necessary to have a patron, but he resented the situation of dependence, and in his heart he rebelled against it. One way of asserting his artistic independence was his refusal to be rushed. He planned a huge equestrian statue of Ludovico. This was supposed to be the biggest statue of a horse ever constructed. In this way he was shrewdly playing on Ludovico’s longing for all things grandiose. Despite continual pressure and a barrage of complaints, Leonardo kept the Duke waiting for 17 years and even then only managed to produce a terra cotta model of the horse.
The statue was destined never to see the light of day. In 1498 disaster struck. Italy had attracted the attention of foreign powers. The French and Hapsburg monarchs entered into deadly intrigues with the Popes to interfere in Italian affairs. In the midst of wars and intrigues, a French army under Louis XII fell upon Milan. When the French troops entered the city they used the huge terra cotta model of Leonardo’s equestrian statue for target practice, while the 60 tons of bronze that was intended for making the statue was melted down for cannon. Once again Leonardo was forced to flee, this time to Mantua, and then to Rome.
The third stage: in Rome
At Rome Leonardo worked for yet another wealthy bandit whose cruelty made him a terror to all Italy – the notorious Cesare Borgia. Cesare had become master of Rome through a combination of iron determination, audacity, complete lack of scruple, and that element of good luck that often accompanies gamblers and adventurers. The favourite son of Pope Alexander, Cesare had led a profligate life at the Vatican in the company of whores, drunkards and courtesans.
Tiring of of the rigors of religious life, Cesare asked for the permission of the cardinals and the pope to renounce the priesthood. The latter granted it "for the good of his soul." He immediately took steps that may not have done much for his soul, but did wonders for the advancement of his worldly state. Beginning his political career by murdering his brother and brother-in-law, he seized power in Rome. A successful general, his military style was characterised by extreme ruthlessness.
As a result of his warlike exploits, he gained possession of extensive territories, and the pope created him duke of Romagna. But he was threatened by a series of conspiracies mainly organised by the powerful Orsini family. By a combination of devious cunning and utter ruthlessness, he maintained himself in power. But, as Macchiavelli pointed out, ultimately, his success depended upon the support of the Papacy, and that proved a fatal weakness. When his father died in 1503 his good fortune abandoned him. The new pope, Pius III, had him arrested and the accession of the Borgias' deadly enemy Julius II caused his final ruin.
When Leonardo emigrated to Rome, all this lay in the future. Then Cesare Borgia was still one of the most formidable rulers in all Italy. Cesare was not an easy man to work with. His greed was insatiable and he could brook no opposition. Personally he was morose, silent and unsympathetic. Yet somehow Leonardo managed to win his favour. In Rome his art rose to new heights. He was pushing artistic technique to the limits of its possibilities.
His use of sunlight and shadow was highly original and the effects stunning. Here we see a perfect mastery of the dialectic of the unity of opposites as expressed in light and shade. He gave a depth of atmosphere to Florentine painting that it had never possessed before. In these remarkable paintings objects and persons depicted seem to loom out of the darkness. They do not seem to stand on their own but are an integral part of their surroundings – part of an organic whole. This sense of wholeness is a very dialectical view of the world and imparts a special sense of power and emotion to his paintings.
The introduction of perspective represented a real revolution in representational art. It was grounded in the scientific spirit of the times. With characteristic rigour, Leonardo Da Vinci identified not one but three different sorts of perspective. By such techniques, Leonardo transformed European art forever. Leonardo drew his models from real life – from the market place and the brothel. While working on his massive fresco of The Last Supper he went round the city making sketches of people for use as models. The result – when it was finally finished in 1498 – is said to have astonished the Duke.
His genius made him many rivals in the world of art where ferocious competition for patronage gave rise to wars and intrigues that closely resembled those that characterised the political life of the times. He clashed with rising younger artists like Raphael, and especially Michelangelo, who hated him with a passion.
Leonardo had problems on another, far more dangerous, front. The seat of the Papacy, Rome was a priest-ridden city and his freethinking ways soon got him into endless trouble with his patrons and the Pope. In the person of Leonardo, art and science meet and combine to produce work of great genius. Leonardo was a compulsive observer of natural phenomena. This combination of art and science seems to fly in the face of our modern obsession with the division of labour. But in the world of the Renaissance it was fairly normal. Art and science frequently went hand in hand. They were united in technology and certain types of engineering. Leonardo is the perfect example of this unity.
“Nature will be my mistress”, he is said to have exclaimed. And this is what is essential about his art – it is rooted in keen observation and tireless experimentation. It is entirely free from the dead hand of routine and the slavish worship of tradition. In Leonardo’s figures we see the result of painstaking observation of the human anatomy. His writings are impregnated with the spirit of philosophical materialism. For him, the most important book was not the Bible or Aristotle. It was that great and beautiful book of Nature, a book that is open for all those with eyes to see. He wrote:
“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, simpler or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.”
“Those men who are inventors and interpreters between Nature and Man, as compared with boasters and declaimers of the works of others, must be regarded and not otherwise esteemed than as the object in front of a mirror, when compared with its image seen in the mirror. For the first is something in itself, and the other nothingness. Folks little indebted to Nature, since it is only by chance that they wear the human form and without it I might class them with the herds of beasts.”
The story goes that he entered a deep cave (called the Mouth of the Devil) and discovered marine fossils, which, he realised, must have formed over a long time. That led him to question the biblical version of Creation. He certainly held very advanced and subversive views on religion in general and stood close to the materialist standpoint. He engaged in the dissecting of corpses. He did this partly for the purpose of studying human anatomy out of purely scientific interest, but also in order to perfect his artistic technique.
He poured scorn on those who resorted to the authority of Aristotle and the philosophers of old rather than base themselves on observation and experiment:
“Many will think they may reasonably blame me by alleging that my proofs are opposed to the authority of certain men held in the highest reverence by their inexperienced judgments; not considering that my works are the issue of pure and simple experience, who is the one true mistress. These rules are sufficient to enable you to know the true from the false – and this aids men to look only for things that are possible and with due moderation – and not to wrap yourself in ignorance, a thing which can have no good result, so that in despair you would give yourself up to melancholy.”
All this caused a growing rift with the Vatican, which attempted to call him to order. But Leonardo’s unquenchable thirst for scientific knowledge was not to be extinguished by anything as trivial as religion. He continued to walk a dangerous road – the road that consigned Giordano to the flames of the Inquisition and stopped the mouth of Galileo.In the end he was forced to go into exile in France.